Everyone has those nostalgic movies and shows they wish they could re-watch for the first time every time. My favorite horror TV series from my youth was Goosebumps. It terrified me to my core. One episode bothered me so much, in my youth, that I was reluctant to try on Halloween masks out of fear that I might not be able to remove said mask.
The Goosebumps live action TV series was adapted from R.L. Stine’s books and ran from 1995-1998. The show, aimed for kids and preteens, tells supernatural, paranormal, and fantasy stories. Even though a low budget series, the show certainly didn’t lack any real scares, it was enhanced with creepy music and frightening plots. The series balanced horror and humor and was fit for the era of kids who grew up during this time.
Without most audiences realizing, the series dealt with hard-hitting issues, including: parental abuse, kidnapping, torture, and bullying. The series allowed these subjects to be displayed in a way that made sense while keeping the story tasteful and instilling fear.
After re-watching the episodes, I realized this show was for a completely different generation and dealt with heavy issues that current content for kids would never put on screen. Kid’s horror, including the new Goosebumps movies, have a completely different look and feel than the original series.
The television show was spooky all the way through with just enough needed humor. But the bigger question remains: Did the show present issues that were too disturbing for the target audience or is the current content for kids too soft? Well, let’s take a look at a few noteworthy entries in the series and you can be the judge.
‘The Haunted Mask’
Carly Beth, a girl who is afraid of everything, is constantly bullied by her classmates. As she’s chatting with her friend, one of boys who picks on her puts worms in her sandwich as she takes a bite. Fed up with being scared and picked on, she tries to find the perfect costume to scare her classmates on Halloween night. As she goes into a costume shop, she takes a look around and eyes a creepy looking mask. She grabs the mask and runs out of the store as the shop owner warns her not to take it. That Halloween night, Carly and her friend go trick-or-treating and things turn horrifying when the mask starts to form to her face and refuses to come off. The mask changes her demeanor and voice all while she wreaks havoc on the neighborhood and finally gets revenge. After she realizes she can’t take it off, she runs back to the shop owner who tells her she’s wearing a real face and the only way she can remove her mask is with a symbol of love. The other haunted masks awaken to her hysterics and chase her while she cries in fear. It isn’t until she starts to love and accept herself that the mask finally comes off.
Was this episode too disturbing?
Not long ago, it wasn’t taboo to see kids walking home alone or trick-or-treating by themselves. But things are different now. A young girl going into a Halloween shop alone and having a conversation with an older man (who locks the door behind her) wouldn’t sit well with people. Bullying is treated differently in schools and kids putting worms into a child’s food would send parents into an angry spiral. The bullies certainly wouldn’t be rewarded with a full night of trick-or-treating. This episode would likely be met with criticism if released today. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was too extreme. After all, real life if often much scarier than anything depicted in the Goosebumps series.
‘A Night in Terror Tower’
Eddie and Sue take a tour of Terror Tower, a castle from Medieval times, while their parents are at a business conference. The children are guided by a tour guide who goes over the gruesome details of the torture chamber. As they move through the tour, they are stalked by a man in a cape. The kids get lost on the tour and the man in the cape tries to kidnap them. Eddie and Sue escape the man and leave the castle but realize their memories have faded and can’t remember anything about their lives. They’re eventually caught by the man in the cape and they travel back through time to the Medieval period.
In this reality, Sue and Eddie are royalty and are about to be beheaded by the man in the cape. In a torture chamber they meet a sorcerer, Morgred, who tells them he sent them to the future to protect them from execution. The man in the cape is actually their uncle and wants to murder them so he can claim the throne. Sue and Eddie are brought into the torture chamber where a man is sharpening his knife, getting ready to behead them. Morgred helps out the kiddos by performing magic and sends them back to the future unharmed.
Was this episode too disturbing?
The show depicts real torture and torture implements, including prisoners bound to a board as their legs and arms are stretched to the point of near death. The elaborate torture scenes, people imprisoned behind bars, and sharpening knives for the purpose of beheading kids might be too heavy for the children of today. In the episode, the kids were willing to accept their death and were told to “be brave” while being killed. I’ve seen horror movies less intense than this episode. But that’s not a criticism. Just a comment on how the cultural paradigm regarding children’s entertainment has shifted over the years.
‘Stay Out of the Basement’
Siblings, Margaret and Casey, are left alone with their dad for the weekend while their mom visits their sick aunt. Their dad, a botanist, spends most of his time in the basement working on a new project after being fired from his university job. Margaret notices her father exhibiting odd behavior and the kids decide to explore the basement while dad is out. Inside the basement, a plant grabs Margaret’s just as her father is returning home. And he seems completely unfazed by the predatory plant behavior. Margaret and Casey’s dad’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre. Margaret spies on her father and sees green ooze coming out of an open wound and plants growing atop his head.
Casey and Margaret’s paranoia increases after their father forcibly instructs them to eat plant food. The children decide to investigate the basement after realizing a recent houseguest may have never left their home. Inside the basement, they find human faces and hands within the plants. The kids discover their real father was locked up in the basement. The man posing as their dad was a plant creature and was created after an accident that mixed human blood with plant molecules. Margaret defeats the plant copy after destroying him with weed killer.
Was this episode too disturbing? The episode depicts parental abuse and torture. It might be met with judgement if released today for being anything but kid friendly. However, those of us that grew up with Goosebumps turned out just fine. And that may be an indicator that children’s media doesn’t need to be so heavily watered down.
There are some eyebrow-raising moments in the Goosebumps series that probably wouldn’t fly today. But that’s part of what makes the show so great. It took chances and pushed the envelope.
In April, it was announced that a new Goosebumps TV series was in the works and I sincerely hope it takes the same thought-provoking approach to storytelling that it’s predecessor did. After all, being scared (in a safe environment can be a real catharsis for people of all ages.